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Japan and China can push the island row over the horizon

by Steve Tsang

Tensions between China and Japan over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea have eased somewhat in recent days, after a series of naval manoeuvres and violent protests in both countries. But this long-running emotional dispute over the islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, is still steering both nations towards a collision course.

The timing of this crisis is deeply unfortunate, coinciding with critical junctures in the domestic politics of both countries and making it very difficult for either to back off. Make no mistake: this argument is serious and will not subside until tactful diplomacy usurps brash rhetoric.

China is on the cusp of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, and senior leaders in Beijing are competing to adopt the most robust nationalistic position towards Japan. Being considered “soft on Japan” weakens the chance of promotion and hurts politicians’ standing in the eyes of the Chinese people.

The majority of Chinese citizens have been brought up reading school textbooks that frame Sino-Japanese relations around the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in China in the first half of the 20th century.

For them, the issue is far more important than a territorial dispute. It is about righting “historic wrongs”. The fact that Mao Zedong repeatedly thanked the Japanese for the invasion, which created the conditions for the Communist Party to win power in China, is unknown to most. Nor do most Chinese realise that Japan has apologised to China several times and has been by far the largest aid-giver to post-Mao China.

In Japan, right-wing politicians led by the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, coupled with the recent announcement that fresh elections will be called “soon”, leave little scope for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to back down from purchasing three of the disputed islands from their private owner.

Indeed, Mr Noda’s nationalisation plan was devised to pre-empt Mr Ishihara from buying them and using them to provoke China overtly. The prime minister’s effort backfired, horribly.

With nationalists on both sides seeking to force the hands of their respective leaders, pressure is building on both governments to strengthen their claims. This risks an escalation of the crisis and the possibility of direct conflict increases.

But confrontation can be avoided – and the opportunity to avert it lies most solidly with China.

The Chinese government must seize the initiative and ask Japan to simply acknowledge the existence of a dispute and agree to a plan of action that freezes the issue until an agreed time, for example, 50 years from now.

This will give both sides a chance to heal the wounds from the past and defer the matter until cooler heads can work out a permanent solution peacefully.

Politically, it is virtually impossible for the Japanese government to make the first move, as it does not accept that Japanese sovereignty over the islands is open to contest.

China can move to acknowledge, not accept, Japan’s position on the issue, namely that the Japanese government considers the Senkaku islands to be Japanese territories.

In return, it should demand Japan reciprocate by acknowledging, without accepting, the Chinese position: that the Diaoyu islands are historically Chinese territories that were handed over to Japan by the United States after the Second World War without Chinese consent.

It should be made clear that in these scenarios, neither side will have conceded their respective positions. Rather, they will form the basis for both sides to work out a framework for an agreement to avoid what could become a military confrontation.

The agreements should specify that the issue of sovereignty over the islands is not to be discussed or resolved for several decades.

In the meantime, any unilateral action by either party to strengthen one’s claim, such as institutionalising additional maritime patrols or building new structures on the islands, will be deemed irrelevant for the final settlement. Any future negotiations will need to be based on the current claims.

The agreement should state that any exploration and exploitation of oil and gas reserves in the disputed islands and their waters should only be allowed to proceed after negotiations between China and Japan.

Moving towards such an arrangement should be acceptable to China, as it conforms to the principles laid down by the late leader Deng Xiaoping. The islands are currently under Japanese administration and their security falls within the terms of the US-Japan Mutual Defence Treaty. It would also signal that the Chinese government is committed to steering China towards a peaceful rise.

This solution is more difficult for Japan to stomach, as it could appear to imply a change in its basic position – that its sovereignty over the islands is not open to contest.

But the reality is that there is an interminable dispute. The rest of the world may not take sides, but Japan’s stubborn defence that no dispute exists carries little credibility internationally. If China can demonstrate maturity in making the first move, Japan will be ill-advised to ignore it.

This article originally appeared in the Comment section of  The National on the 5th October, 2012.

Steve Tsang is a professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Anti-Japanese Outbursts and Beijing’s Dilemma amid Territorial Row

by Su-Jeong Kang.

Amid ongoing territorial spats between China and Japan, several anti-Japanese demonstrations have been reported across China (see CPI blog here). The latest demonstrations followed Japan’s recent move to nationalize disputed islands in the East China Sea, called Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. The group of five small uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan but claimed by both countries.

Earlier this month, despite China’s strong objections, the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from private ownership to nationalize them. This unprecedented move started in April when the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro, planned to buy the islands and build infrastructure as part of his extreme nationalist agenda. Japan’s central government launched a bid to prevent purchase of the islets by Tokyo’s metropolitan government.

Despite its claim that the decision to nationalize the islands was taken to block Ishihara’s provocative plan, strong opposition from the Chinese government and public has remained.

Japan’s move has not only elicited a tough response from the Chinese government but it has also fuelled deep-rooted anti-Japanese sentiment in China. One day after Japan announced the nationalization of the islands, protesters gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing to protest against Japan’s act. The next day, more anti-Japanese rallies were held in several major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The mass protests escalated over the weekend of 15-16 September, reaching a peak on September 18, the anniversary of the 1931 Mukden Incident which had precipitated Japan’s invasion of northeast China.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated in demonstrations in over 100 Chinese cities to show their anger towards Japan. Some protesters turned violent, attacking Japanese-owned businesses and smashing Japanese brands of car. The recent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China are not only the largest and most widespread, but they have also resulted in the worst vandalism since the two countries normalized ties in 1972.

The Chinese government apparently tolerated the public protests at the beginning. Such a large number of people could not have demonstrated if the government resolutely opposed them. In September 2010, when a serious diplomatic row had been sparked by Japan’s arrest of a Chinese skipper whose fishing boat had collided with Japanese patrol ships off the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Beijing sought to curb popular protests against Japan to avoid escalating tensions. Consequently, anti-Japanese demonstrations that month were small, lightly attended and scattered around only a few Chinese cities, under heavy police presence.

In contrast, large-scale nationwide protests occurred last week with police escorting the marchers. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman commented that the recent widespread anti-Japan protests reflect the Chinese public’s resolve to safeguard sovereignty over the islands, urging the Japanese government to heed the Chinese people’s strong appeals. Beijing had seemed willing to take advantage of the protests to increase its bargaining power in the territorial dispute.

However, after the latest demonstrations turned violent, with acts of vandalism, the public safety authorities deployed armed police before events could spiral out of control or turn against the Chinese government. Tight security remains around the Japanese diplomatic missions and businesses as protests could resume amid growing anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese populace.

Beijing has taken a two-pronged approach to increase pressure on Japan by tolerating anti-Japanese popular protests at first, then starting to curb them when they threaten domestic and/or international interests. However, it appears difficult to maintain a balanced approach while playing both side of the issue. Beijing faces a dilemma in dealing with popular nationalism.

Given the growing public outrage over the recent territorial dispute, anti-Japanese protests could easily escalate, damaging social stability and China’s international image. But, by suppressing protest too harshly or appearing too keen to re-engage with Japan, Beijing could suffer a backlash from an angry public. Thus, the current nationalist outburst may significantly limit China’s available options to ease tensions over the territorial row.

Su-Jeong Kang is a PhD candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

Diaoyu Islands and Unfinished Nation-Building in China

by Zhengxu Wang.

In recent days, public protests have been erupting in Chinese cities, with demonstrators demanding that the Japanese government return the Diaoyu Islands to China. Yesterday, it was reported that the vehicle of the Japanese ambassador to  China was attacked while driving on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road.  These protests have put a lot of pressure on the Chinese government to take a tougher stance against Japan.

They have come after a group of activists, sailing on a Hong Kong vessel, landed on one of the disputed islands in an effort to proclaim China’s sovereignty. They were arrested but quickly released after pressure from the government and the public in Beijing, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The incident and ensuing public outcry has shown that the islands remain a highly explosive issue within contemporary Chinese nationalism. It is also clear that nationalism is rising in Japan and other Asian countries. In fact, domestic opinion in Japan is also calling for a more assertive line on the Diaoyu issue. The activists’ landing was provoked by a series of events in Japan that suggested a more assertive stance.

A plan to “nationalise” the islands appears under serious consideration by some sections of Japanese society and the government. How to manage the dispute with the other party while satisfying domestic public opinion presents a big challenge to policymakers both in Tokyo and Beijing.

The Chinese public maintains a strong belief that the Diaoyu Islands are a legitimate part of China. The Ming and Qing dynasties had administrative control over them. In fact, Chinese researchers have pointed to Japanese historical documents acknowledging the islands as being under Qing governance. And, in private, some Japanese government officials have acknowledged that, historically, the islands did not belong to Japan.

Leaving aside all the legal and geopolitical nuances following the defeat of Japan in the second world war, what is significant today is that the majority of Chinese on the mainland, and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, believe that the administrative rights of those islands were illegally transferred to Japan in the 1950s and 1970s, when the US was attempting to build Japan as its pillar for a Western Pacific security strategy.

Chinese communities, including those on the mainland and in Hong Kong and Taiwan, harbour nationalist sentiments. Hong Kong and Taiwanese people may reject the political regime on the mainland, but when it comes to the Diaoyu issue, they share almost identical, if not more aggressive, positions.

In fact, activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan are often much more outspoken, as they are able to express their views more freely. As a result, activists from these apparently “less Chinese” places express Chinese nationalism more vocally.

This pattern also applies to other issues where China’s territorial claims are yet to be fully settled: the South China Sea, Tibet and Xinjiang are cases in point.
On these issues, Chinese living everywhere often speak out to support Beijing’s position. It is therefore simplistic to assert that the nationalism that has erupted over these disputed territories has been nurtured by the communist regime.

The underlying message is that, despite political differences, Chinese often share a set of common ideas when it comes to territory. Despite an allegiance to different governments (Beijing, Taipei, or others), they have a common understanding that the Chinese nation is linked to a certain geographical area.
Finding solutions to territorial disputes therefore constitutes a major challenge for Beijing. It will amount to a major nation-building project that Chinese  nationalists – on the mainland, and in Hong Kong and Taiwan – are looking to the current leaders to accomplish.

Failing to find a satisfactory solution will result in it being labeled a “traitor government”, with its right to represent China taken back by the people.
To a lesser extent, the government in Taiwan, which still claims to represent the Chinese people, faces the same challenge.

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This blog is part of a commentary by the author that was published in the South China Morning Post on 24 August, 2012.

Dr Zhengxu Wang is  Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute and Lecturer at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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